Motorcycle with a Long Lifetime: Kawasaki KLR650

2018 KLR650 catalog image

Last month, Kawasaki announced that their KLR650, shown above in a picture from, would not be offered for the 2019 model year. The KLR650 was introduced for the 1987 model year, and lasted almost unchanged, with just one refresh, for over 30 years on the US market.

2015 KLR650 with aftermarket luggage and custom paint

The KLR650 has been an icon of motorcycling almost from the very beginning, as a favorite of round-the-world travelers, wannabe round the world travelers, thrifty commuters, and even the US military. It’s also a bike I considered buying several times, but never did, though a few friends owned them.

1970’s Kawasaki Bighorn in classic Kawasaki green

Like it’s competitors Yamaha and Suzuki, but unlike Honda, Kawasaki focussed on 2 stroke powered bikes until the 1970’s. As with Yamaha, there were a few 4 stroke Kawasaki street bikes, but Kawasaki’s single cylinder off road, and dual-purpose on/off road bikes were all 2 strokes, culminating in the 350cc F9 Bighorn shown above. The Bighorn  used a rotary valve engine, unlike conventional piston port 2 strokes, and was considered the most powerful and quickest bike in its class. But the writing was on the wall for the 2 stroke street bike. Emissions controls, poor fuel economy, and market competition from Honda, led to the demise of the Bighorn in 1975.

1981 KL250 catalog shot

In 1978 Kawasaki launched their first 4 stroke dual purpose bike, the modestly spec’ed and powered KL250, with an air-cooled single cylinder SOHC engine. I did own one of these, though I didn’t even include it in my Motorcycles of a Lifetime post a few months ago. My KL250 was slow, vibrated, ran poorly, and was quickly replaced by a new Honda XL600R. The displacement of that Honda was typical of the growth of “big” on/off road singles from 350, to 400, to 500, and finally by the early ’80’s, to 600 cc.

1984 KLR600 catalog shot

In 1984, Kawasaki leapfrogged past the other three Japanese manufacturers, and not only updated the 250 and added a 600, but both of these new dual purpose bikes had water-cooled engines. The new Kawasakis also joined their competitors by switching to disk front brakes, and single spring/shock rear suspension … or, in Kawasaki-speak, “uni-trak” (yes, lower case).

Two first-gen KLR650’s, with OEM graphics

The KLR600 was not popular initially. It was heavier than its air-cooled competitors, and the market was concerned about the reliability and durability of water-cooling for off road use. That all changed, perhaps slowly at first, with the 1987 launch of the KLR650. With a little more displacement and a little more power than its predecessor, and a rear disk brake, the 650 featured a unique-in-its-class frame mounted fairing and a huge fuel tank, offering an interesting alternative to the expensive BMW R100GS Dakar for long distance off pavement travel. Even the bright colors and garish graphics resembled some versions of the big German twin.

1999 KLR650

And well, that was about it for 15 years. Every year, Kawasaki offered “bold new graphics”, following trends from bright neons to earth tone greens, and a muted shade of blue, albeit still usually with garish graphics.

Military KLR650 (photo courtesy of NY Times)

Another more muted (visually) variant probably wasn’t so muted audibly, though I’ve never actually seen or heard one. The US military worked with a California-based company to develop a diesel version, which would run on the common JP8 fuel, and reputedly got up to 100 mpg (US).

Yet another shade of blue – not sure what year this is

But even with the standard gasoline engine, the KLR650 had good fuel economy. Coupled with the large 6.1 US gallon fuel tank providing extended range, a more comfortable seat than the barely-padded logs of most dual purpose bikes, and a decent wind protection from its fairing, the KLR became popular as a low cost touring bike. Especially after the advent of Internet forums, KLR riders quickly gained a reputation as being thrifty travelers. In particular, it became a cliche that KLR owners would rather use a plastic milk crate found by the side of the road, than buy expensive luggage (several pictures here notwithstanding).

The refreshed ’08-’18 KLR with OEM camo graphics – a homage to the military KLR?

So as I mentioned above, not much changed for 15 years. But in 2008, Kawasaki made some minor changes to the suspension and brakes, and restyled the seat, tank, and bodywork. Those changes are comparable to the various restylings the Jeep Cherokee XJ had over its “short” 19 year lifespan. But the KLR never got a powertrain update as significant as the XJ’s bump from the GM 2.8 V6 to the classic 4.0 inline six. The revised KLR650 soldiered on unchanged from ’08 through 2018, with just bold new graphics every few years. A total of 32 model years as a 650, with another 3 for the 600. Not only was the tooling paid off, I suspect it was starting to wear out. In the modern automotive world, only the Lada Niva beat the KLR’s lifespan. Meanwhile, the motorcycle community is eulogizing the KLR650, and wondering what … if anything … will replace it. Yamaha left this market in the US decades ago, and Honda and Suzuki are still selling 650 dual purpose first launched in 1993 and 1996 respectively. Will Kawasaki offer something new and exciting, or follow Yamaha?

(All pictures from the Internet)